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Talking with Castro

For most of the last 50 years, nearly every U.S. president has negotiated secretly with the government of Cuba in bids to resolve the two nations' conflicts
Peter Kornbluh, William M. Leogrande
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, January/February 2009

(continued from page 1)

Yet, in early 1963, when U.S. intelligence picked up signals of a breach in Soviet-Cuban relations in the aftermath of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, savvy administration officials saw an opportunity and an opening for an accommodation with Castro. The idea of using "the sweet approach" to advance the possibility of "quietly enticing Castro over to us" began to surface in Top Secret NSC memoranda. Alongside proposals for covert intervention and sabotage in Cuba, senior White House aides proposed exploring "the rapprochement track." Kennedy "clearly thought this was an exploration worth making," his NSC adviser, McGeorge Bundy, recalled in an interview with the authors. The key problem, Bundy said, was finding a politically "non-dangerous way" to pursue a dialogue. Starting in the spring of 1963, the Kennedy administration engaged Castro in a dialogue through three intermediaries. James Donovan was the first. A prominent New York lawyer and renowned international negotiator, Donovan was recruited by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to win the release of 1,113 Bay of Pigs brigade members who had been captured during the invasion debacle. In face-to-face talks with Castro between August and late December 1962, Donovan not only succeeded at obtaining the release and repatriation to the United States of the Cuban exiles, but thousands of their relatives as well. In Donovan, Castro found the first trusted—indeed respected—U.S. emissary. Believing that the prisoner negotiations had set the stage for a broader discussion about U.S.-Cuban relations, Castro broached the subject in mid-March 1963. "If any relations were to commence between the U.S. and Cuba," Fidel wanted to know, "how it would come about and what would be involved?" In his debriefing at the CIA—tape-recorded and later transcribed—Donovan reported his colorful response:

So I said to him, well, do you, are you familiar with porcupines, and this had to be translated … but they finally agreed that he did understand porcupines. So I said, now do you know how porcupines make love? And he said no. And I said well, the answer is "very carefully," and that is how you and the U.S. would have to get into this.

Castro's expressed interest in discussing peaceful coexistence set off the first high-level debate inside the U.S. government over how or even whether to respond. In a Top Secret—Eyes Only option paper to the White House, the State Department's Cuba specialist, Robert Hurwitch, suggested that Donovan be instructed to "take a week-long walk on the beach" with Castro and tell him that Cuba's ties to the Sino-Soviet bloc were nonnegotiable and would have to be broken. Surprisingly, President Kennedy overruled this approach as too restrictive. "The President does not agree," McGeorge Bundy wrote in a Top Secret memo. "We don't want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines."

Talks with Castro continued through a second, unlikely intermediary: a striking blonde reporter from ABC News named Lisa Howard. During Donovan's last trip to Havana in April 1963, Howard begged him to undertake one final mission—to negotiate an interview with Castro for ABC. Howard scored an exclusive televised interview with the Cuban leader— his first with a U.S. network in four years. Castro used the interview to make the same point he made with Donovan. The prisoner negotiations could be "a beginning point for discussions, if the United States wants it, it is the beginning of better relations." The hour-long interview, broadcast on May 10, 1963, generated headlines around the nation such as "Castro would like to talk to Kennedy" and "Castro Makes Overt Hints He Wants Kennedy Parlay."

Behind the scenes, Lisa Howard committed herself to making negotiations happen. When she returned from Cuba, she briefed Deputy CIA Director Richard Helms on her private talks with Fidel. "Howard definitely wants to impress the U.S. government with two facts: Castro is ready to discuss rapprochement and she herself is ready to discuss it with him if asked to do so by the U.S. Government," Helms reported in a Top Secret memorandum of conversation to President Kennedy.

Howard also made contact with a fellow journalist-turned-diplomat, William Attwood, who was special adviser to U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. The two worked out a "cocktail diplomacy" scheme. Howard would hold a reception at her Central Park East townhouse and invite both Cuba's ambassador to the U.N., Carlos Lechuga, and Attwood to attend so they could discuss how to move negotiations forward. On September 23, amid drinks, finger foods and several dozen members of the New York literati, the first bilateral talks on the potential for a U.S.-Cuban accommodation took place. Lechuga hinted that Fidel was "indeed in the mood to talk," and "thought there was a good chance I might be invited to Cuba if I wished to talk to Castro," Attwood reported to the White House.

To sustain momentum for the diplomatic initiative, Howard transformed her home into a center of communications between Havana and Washington. She made, and received, a series of calls to Castro's office hoping to organize Attwood's trip. On October 31, Fidel's top aide, Rene Vallejo, called her and formally transmitted an invitation for Attwood to clandestinely travel to Cuba and meet with Castro alone.

Castro's concrete invitation set off a flurry of discussion inside the Oval Office. There, on November 5, Bundy briefed President Kennedy on Castro's proposal. The president's secret taping system captured his concern about how the secret mission would actually stay secret, but he expressed no opposition to the meeting itself. "How can Attwood get in and out of there very privately?" the president asked. Bundy and Kennedy then discussed the possibility of "sanitizing" Attwood—retiring him from his U.N. post for a month before undertaking the secret dialogue in Cuba.

On November 19 at 2 a.m., Attwood spoke to Vallejo himself from Lisa Howard's study. Before he could travel to Cuba, Attwood said, the Kennedy White House felt a preliminary meeting in New York "was essential to make sure there was something useful to talk about." Vallejo replied that Castro's office would send instructions to Lechuga on what "an agenda for a later meeting with Castro" would look like. When Attwood passed this information to Bundy later that day, he was told that when the agenda was received, "the President wanted to see me at the White House and decide what to say and whether to go [to Cuba] or what we should do next."

In the final days before his death, Kennedy used yet a third intermediary to send a message of potential détente to Castro. His emissary was the noted French journalist Jean Daniel, who, through Attwood, obtained a meeting with the president. Kennedy expressed some empathy for Castro's anti-Americanism, acknowledging that the United States had committed a number of sins in pre-revolutionary Cuba, including turning the island into "the whorehouse of the U.S." He told Daniel that the trade embargo could be lifted if Castro ended his support for leftist movements in the hemisphere, and that Daniel should return to Washington after seeing Castro and brief Kennedy. The U.S. president, Daniel thought, was "seeking a way out" of the poor state of relations with Cuba. "When I left him," Daniel recalled, "I had the impression I was a messenger of peace." Daniel transmitted Kennedy's message during a meeting with Castro in Havana on November 20. "He listened to me intently. He was drinking my words," Daniel would recall in an interview 40 years later. "Clearly he was happy about the message I was delivering. Sometimes he would say, 'Maybe he has changed. Maybe things are possible with this man.'" Two days later, their subsequent meeting was interrupted by a phone call informing Castro that Kennedy had been shot. He turned to Daniel and said, "This is the end of your mission of peace." Daniel recalled thinking that he was right: without Kennedy, there was no mission.

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